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URI professors build alcohol intervention program for First Nation groups

URI professors build alcohol intervention program for First Nation groups

The Westerly Sun
By Patrick Luce, URI Communications
December 12, 2021

KINGSTON — Two University of Rhode Island psychology professors are partnering with one First Nation community in Canada to develop and test a novel alcohol intervention for First Nation groups — helping alleviate at least one outcome of the historical trauma Indigenous peoples have faced — thanks to a $600,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Professors Nichea Spillane and Nicole Weiss are utilizing Community-Based Participatory Research methods to work collaboratively with communities, empowering them and respecting their Indigenous ways of knowing by prioritizing their contributions to the research process. As a first step, Spillane and Weiss have conducted multiple focus groups with members of a First Nation group in Canada, learning from them some of the unique sources of trauma that have led to alcohol use and related consequences in their community, as well as Indigenous knowledge, practice, and traditions for addressing historical trauma.

The professors, working with members of the community as well as community health professionals and elders, will use this Indigenous knowledge to develop a culturally-grounded intervention, which they hope to use as a model for trauma-informed alcohol treatment across Indigenous groups.

“We will be examining how helpful the treatment is in reducing alcohol use and related harm with members in this First Nation community,” said Spillane, a member of the First Nation group herself. “We’re going to compare 30 people who are getting the intervention to 30 people in a control group on their historical trauma response and drinking over time.”

Much of their work focuses on trauma that can lead to problematic alcohol use. For First Nation groups, like their American Indian counterparts, much of that trauma stems from generations of violence inflicted on them by colonizers, beginning with the theft of their land and their forced relocation, and continuing today. Indeed, the Canadian prime minister has called the historical trauma that First Nation people faced an act of genocide.

“Historical trauma is a unique kind of trauma that is experienced by communities who have experienced intergenerational emotional and psychological wounding across their lifespan,” Weiss said. “It’s cumulative and stems from losses of people, land, family, and culture that Indigenous populations have faced throughout the history of the United States. It elicits a traumatic response that is different from other types of trauma in that it is felt across individual, family, and community levels. Ultimately, the research suggests that historical trauma causes shifts in individuals that increases risk for both ‘lived’ traumas and of alcohol and other substance use.”

Historical trauma has continued through centuries of discrimination, racism, and prejudice that has seen Indigenous traditions such as the use of sweat lodges, traditional dances, and birth ceremonies prohibited. Even traditional languages have been lost to some as communities and families were prohibited from or otherwise declined to teach children their own language for fear of discrimination and retribution.

Through cultural revitalization efforts, communities such as this one started to regain many of their traditional ways and are even beginning to teach their traditional language to the next generation. However, “These practices were forbidden for so long, so there is still some fear – and even shame – amongst some community members about reengaging with traditional ways” Weiss said. “Over time, when you’re repeatedly sent the message that something is bad, it can be hard to change that perspective.”

“Limited access to traditional forms of coping, like engaging in cultural practices and ceremonies, led people to seek reinforcement elsewhere. For some people, that included the use of substances like alcohol, which colonizers themselves introduced to Indigenous populations and often used as a vehicle to take advantage of them,” Spillane said. “The emotional after-effects of historical trauma made Indigenous people even more vulnerable to using alcohol to cope, and the result of this may have been further exposure to ‘lived’ traumas such as assault and abuse” said Weiss.

“I’ve done a series of studies with First Nation peoples to look at why alcohol use is such a problem,” Spillane said. “What kept coming up was this loss of culture alongside lifelong exposure to traumas, both historical and lived as well. They’ve identified it as a problem and have identified healing from historical trauma as an important piece of healing from alcohol use. We are taking a community-based participatory approach, so really it’s a partnership with them to understand how to use their knowledge to and leverage their tremendous resilience best address trauma in alcohol interventions.”

Weiss and Spillane have completed five focus groups, two with First Nation members who self-identify as drinkers; and one each with First Nation members who identify as former drinkers in recovery, health care professionals, and community elders. The pair is systematically analyzing the information from those groups to inform an alcohol intervention that Spillane said “will be designed by the community, for the community.”

“One thing I’ve walked away from the focus groups knowing is that this treatment will look very different from how traditional alcohol interventions look,” Weiss said. “It might target similar underlying mechanisms to Western trauma-informed alcohol interventions, but the ways in which those processes will be targeted is going to look drastically different.”